The Secret Ingredients for 3 Stars from The New York Times


Lessons from Empellon

Photo: Benjamin Norman, The New York Times

Let me start by saying that only 29 restaurants in the last 30 years have been awarded three stars from the NY Times. It’s a bit of a miracle, but because I love to tell my story, I will. Here is what I think got us there; may the somewhat magic force be also with you in your journey.

Every year 2000+ restaurants open in NYC and the NY Times chooses about 50 for their esteemed critic to review. Obviously, being chosen to be reviewed is a tremendous honor in itself.  Of those 50 per year, sometimes one will get three stars out of a possible four. How to get four? I’ve no idea, but here was my journey to three stars.

On June 28, 2017, Empellon Midtown was awarded three stars from Pete Wells, the NY Times Food Critic.  About a week before the review came out, we got a call from the Times asking for permission to photograph the space and to fact-check an article. We were hoping that this meant our review would be in the Wednesday edition Food section.  We were all “walking on eggshells” that Wednesday morning, trying to act normally to our business crowd of customers who were in for their power lunch. From the back-service stairwell to the upper mezzanine level, I heard three loud bangs and a yell so sharp, I nearly dropped my tray of glassware! It was Chef Alex.  He had slapped his hand HARD on the expo pass (boom, boom, boom) and roared “3 STARS!!”.   

Empellon is a Mexican-inspired restaurant created by Alex Stupak. I was hired to be the General Manager of what they were calling their “flagship location,” in midtown Manhattan, and their fourth restaurant in the collection. 

“We want this midtown location to be the standard by which we open every future Empellon.  Ten years from now, people will assume it was the first location.  We must make everything so specific here that we can replicate it (soul included) wherever our journey takes us next.”

I left my own restaurant, White Street, about a year before accepting the position at Empellon.  I really didn’t know if I would ever enter the restaurant industry again, but then I met David Rodolitz, Chef Alex Stupak’s business partner, and everything changed.  My philosophy of management is unlike any other I have known in my 20 years in the business.  I fiercely believe in the importance of staff culture, the life-changing WOW that service can provide, and kindness in restaurants. David understood and wanted my leadership on his project. 

I came home from my interview with David trying to find words to express the connection made so that I could explain it to my husband.  I made a few attempts and he sighed and said,

“You’re going back in, aren’t you?”

I was almost sure the answer was yes, but I had one more meeting to have. It was when I met with Chef Alex that I realized the opportunity to “push” in service and management, the way he was pushing in food. I couldn’t wait to get started. He told me why he named his restaurant Empellon.

“Empellon means to push, to impale. I placed the name on the door so that every time I enter, I am reminded that we are pushing the boundaries of what we are doing.  I am not trying to be the best Mexican restaurant; I am trying to be the best restaurant. I need someone to ‘own’ the dining room.” 

I tell this story to help you understand the first critical item:

1. Know your vision and then PUSH your vision to such extremes that you feel uncomfortable. 

I grew to understand that when I was uncomfortable, I was doing things that no restaurant manager had ever done before. I was pushing us to be one-of-a-kind, to be memorable, to be one-in-a-million (or at least one in 2000).

2. Everything is rehearsed. The steps of every hour, of every day, of every week, repeat, and repeat, and repeat. 

As a restaurant manager of 20 years, I am practiced at systems and organization. At Empellon, I took that to a new level. Chef Alex explained that the best restaurants do the same things day in and day out, without compromise. I began with myself. Each day I would enter the restaurant at 9:05am, I said hello to the team of Chefs already busy with work in the prep kitchen. I hung my coat, opened my laptop, and checked the cover spread for lunch.  I met the overnight cleaning team and walked the space, always finding at least three items for them to touch up before they departed. I walked to my desk, wrote the floor plan and my pre-shift meeting notes. On Fridays, at 10am, I also dusted the sculptures in the dining room. And so on, into meetings, service, afternoon walk outside, meetings, service, say goodnight to my team, Chef, and about 9:30pm, walk to my train.

For my team of managers and the service team, the similar routines were set: 

Calibrate the espresso, practice cappuccino art, bring chef a cold brew to taste, straighten framed artwork on the west wall, check clock-ins of service team, check the locker rooms, check the bathrooms, check the bathrooms, check the bathrooms, polish wine glasses, polish silver, empty slop bucket, check tostada size and shape.  And do it all again tomorrow, and again, and again.  Then meet, and rehearse it, and then do it all again. Again. 

It was our dance, and the choreography was extremely intentional.  Every move we made was with thought.  Every decision I made was in support of this vision, this routine.

3. The vision of the restaurant must be embedded in company culture.

Sure, the owners and managers knew the vision, but for the service and Chef teams to understand the vision, we had to create it within the culture of who we were.  How did we do this? Well, that’s not simple to answer, but I can tell you that:

·         We hired carefully.

·         We trained constantly.

·         The service team meditated, together, before every lunch service and every dinner service.

·         We helped each other.

·         We challenged each other.

·         We did not tolerate lateness.

·         We committed to WOW-ing every guest.

·         We became students of Chef Alex, of Mexico, of mezcal, of art.

·         We took it personally when a fallen lime wedge stayed on the floor for more than 4 seconds.

·         We scrubbed our bathroom floors tirelessly.

We were a team that knew we were part of something miraculous. We were honored to give warm and charming service. We were honored to cook and serve Chef Alex’s recipes.  We were a three-star team and Pete Wells agreed! (still gives me goosebumps)

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